How were poems composed and passed down through generations in Anglo-Saxon Britain?  

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oral-traditional lterature is not handed down verbatim over the generations but rather composed as it is performed from traditional elements. The traditional elements used in oral-forulaic composition operate on the levels of story, scene and line. A "singer of tales" learns the overall narratives of traditional tales by listening to other performers. He then accumulates knowledge of standard patterns of scnes, e.g. the "hero donning armor" or "hero leaving home" scenes. To shape peotic lines in performance, the singer learns standard formula -- normal epithet-noun and verb phrases that fit metrically into partial or complete lines and then assembles lines out of these components. No two performances of the "same" oral-traditional epic are identical by the identity standards of literate societies, but instead "the same tale" means the same general narrative elaborated in response to performance situation by the singer, just as the "same melody" may be arranged differently by different musical ensembles.